Financial consultant and former marine officer Robert Haddick has a biting and dark view of the future of war correspondents entitled, Journalists, Your’re in the Army Now, here. I think there is great value in looking at the dark side of things and Haddick faces some issues squarely that I have not seen taken on so honestly elsewhere. He sees the ideal of the independent war correspondent as finished and that journalists will be forced into becoming combatants for one side or the other in order to survive. He cites Reporters Without Borders who say that 181 reporters have been killed in Iraq, 14 kidnapped and 2 are missing since the war began. Local reporters will be forced to ally themselves with a particular faction and tailor their coverage to suit the war aims of that faction to avoid getting killed. He sees the Western media as in pretty much the same fix – either compelled to report from a safe haven like the Baghdad green zone or embed with the troops. I cannot argue with his view of the operational reality of the Information War:
….combatants in today’s conflicts are striving to control how their conflicts are perceived. And they are trying to deny this capability to their enemies. Being able to energize your supporters and demoralize your enemy is today’s best “combat multiplier”. The high death toll of reporters in Iraq is a stark indicator of the struggle for this information high ground.
Haddick’s view of the legacy of Iraq is that the US will avoid getting involved in conventional war again because they can’t control the information side of it:
In the future, the U.S. will use its conventional combat formations only for the types of operations that they are best suited for, namely short, high-speed, and high-intensity combat operations. Reporters will be invited to these affairs, but they will be very rare. Potential enemies of the United States will arrange to avoid high-intensity combat operations, at which U.S. conventional combat units excel.
Instead the US will rely on Special Forces and try to control the information battlespace by a media blackout:
The U.S. government will arrange such a blackout when it employs local proxies, militias, and tribes to do its fighting. There will be few or no U.S. conventional units going to such conflicts in the future with which reporters can embed. By contrast, reporters are almost never allowed to cover current special operations missions, such as those that would support such proxy wars. As for the local proxy and militia allies of the U.S., they are unlikely to have much sympathy for the needs and traditions of Fourth Estate.
Haddick then points to Somalia as an example of this just this kind of warfare. I have noticed exactly the same about the non role of the press in Somalia and agree strongly that we will see more of this kind of hidden war. My concern is that sometimes conventional forces are needed and I am not willing to see them put on the shelf and not used because they take a terrible beating from our own press every time they are deployed. Haddick, unless I read him wrongly, sees the problem of the press hamstringing our armed forces as unlikely to change and pretty much unfixable. I am not so sure. I think the Internet has made a good beginning at fixing the problem. To be fair, Haddick’s view of the history of war coverage, from a content perspective, is not significantly different from my own:
War journalism has thus come full circle. During World War II, journalists were essentially in the army, in most cases in uniform. Government policy, wartime censorship, and the culture of the times made the war correspondents just another part of the greater war machine.
The next two generations of war reporters obviously followed a different model. Whether the media “lost” the Vietnam (and Iraq?) wars is an old argument I will not repeat here. Suffice it to say that the Vietnamese Communists stumbled on a winning strategy, a strategy that the Islamists have studied and are now trying to implement.
Where I differ is that McLuhan’s thinking and a background in psychology gives me a perspective on the changing form of that coverage. We have gone from a mix of radio and newspaper coverage of WWII to coverage dominated by TV in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. I think Haddick may be underestimating the impact of the Internet in the current conflict. Because as a form TV is dominated by emotion laden visuals, war coverage is inherently gut wrenching, focuses on compelling detail, and puts the viewer in the role of passive observer with absolutely no sense of control of the unfolding events. TV war coverage radiates PTSD. We know from psychology that when a group of victims is kidnapped that the individuals in the group who actively find a way to escape suffer the least PTSD afterwards – assuming they succeed of course. The rest tend to Stockholm syndrome where they identify with the kidnapper’s agenda in an attempt to survive by not offending the kidnappers. Therefore, TV has been an inherently anti war medium – at least in the West in the period since WWII. (It is not clear what the effect al Jazeera and other Arab TV will have on Arab culture, but it appears it might be quite different because it is a time when that culture is trying to assert itself rather than recover from a devastating world war as was the case in the West after WWII.)
Of course the media environment is changing currently and TV and indeed its mass media predecessors radio and newspapers are losing their exclusive control of what is news and how it is reported. This video (Hat tip: Belmont Club)is a satirical demonstration of how the current manner of war coverage would look if applied to the Normandy landings during WWII. It captures by emulation some of the methods of TV war reporting that have made it such an anti war medium. The on the scene descriptions of chaos, the military and political experts second guessing those in charge etc. It also very directly demonstrates how the Internet is undermining the currently established way of reporting war. Before the Internet there was no easy way to widely distribute this sort of outing of media manipulation.
However the change in media environment has gone further than making the sins of the MSM obvious through satire. Individuals like Bill Roggio, Michael Yon, and Michael J Totten have simply used the newly accessible platform of the Internet to do superior war coverage. They may be regarded as biased by MSM journalists and the academic institutions that train them, but I think the new breed of Internet war correspondent is actually more objective and fair than most of the MSM. An excellent example is a recent post by Bill Roggio which takes the New York Times to task for using a leaked memo to report the current surge in Iraq a failure. Roggio does what any honest reporter should do and calls General Petraeus’s office to discover who wrote it and why and if it reflects current military thinking. It turns out it does not and I believe Roggio’s report because he has a record of telling the truth and the MSM have been caught too many times using any piece of information they can find that advances the the idea of American failure and defeat. If you watch the video linked above you will see this media technique sent up by a fake reporter using the very real letter that General Eisenhower had written taking personal responsibility for a possible failure of the D Day landings to imply their actual failure. Other times reports in the MSM do not follow such predictable lines. Indeed I always mention the New York Times’s reporter John Burns in this regard. When he reports bad news I listen for the same reason I take the the best of the new reporters on the Internet seriously – because I am pretty sure they not making it up or spinning it out of dubious sources.
The point I want to end with is simply that I believe the Internet has broken the hold the mass media have had on public opinion. I am therefore not certain that the only solution for the US fighting the long war on terror will be to do it exclusively out of sight of the media. There is also another reason Roggio and Yon probably represent a better future for war reporting. Both are experienced ex soldiers, like Mr Haddick, who are doing a better job of war reporting in part because they understand military operations. I believe the market for reporters who bring military understanding to war reporting will prosper. These Internet based reporters have become, by their own enterprise, the new practitioners of independent war reporting and even are raising its standards. I think it will take some time yet to ‘pry the cold dead fingers’ of the MSM from their sense of entitlement to control public opinion, but I believe the process has well and truly begun.